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How to run commitment-driven planning meetings in 5 easy steps

Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning is a technique that helps a team determine how much work to bring into their Sprint.

What is Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning?

Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning (sometimes called Capacity-Driven Sprint Planning) is a technique that helps a team determine how much work to bring into their sprint, based on how much time (capacity) they have to do the work. Unlike story-driven or date-driven planning in the Planning Game, commitment-driven planning focuses on the team's capacity to complete the work.

What are characteristics of Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning?

A commitment-driven approach can be characterized by:

  • A balance between team and business – The team is allowed to make their own commitment, but the business expects the team to keep it.
  • Long planning sessions – It takes a lot of time to accurate breakdown backlog items and estimate how long they take to complete.
  • High levels of team autonomy – Teams need to be in control of their commitments and how their capacity is used.
  • A focus on time-based estimates – Calculating team capacity in hours means the team must also estimate using hours.
  • Detailed conversations about "done" – In order to accurately task and estimate the work, the team needs to have detailed conversations with the business to understand what it means to be "done done."

What do I need for Commitment-Driven Planning?

Before planning starts:

  1. Gather the team and review a calendar, noting the starting and ending dates for the sprint.
  2. For each team member, determine their total availability (in hours) for each day accounting for meetings, trainings, time off, appointments, long lunches etc.
  3. Note the total daily hours for the team along with the total hours available for the iteration.

Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning in 5 Steps

  1. Add up the capacity of all team members for the sprint to arrive at a total team capacity
  2. Discuss each backlog item as you would normally, defining done, exploring scenarios, negotiating with the Product Owner etc.
  3. Task out the backlog item and add up the hours for each task to arrive at a total number of hours required to complete the backlog item
  4. The facilitator asks the team “Do you have enough capacity to commit to this backlog item?” If the answer is “Yes,” the team adds the backlog item to their commitment. If the answer is “No,” the team moves on to another backlog item, or breaks down the current backlog item into smaller chunks
  5. Repeat the process until the team determines that they cannot take on any more backlog items for the sprint.

How to calculate total capacity for the team

Calculate total capacity for the team by adding up the total capacity for each team member. Capacity for each team member should factor in vacations, meetings, personal days and any other time that individual knows they will not be spending with the team working on the sprint.

You should avoid using ideal numbers for individual capacity and stick to the "elephant in the room" numbers. For example, rather than assuming everyone will be working 8 hours in a day, use 6 hours if it's common for the team to arrive at 9AM, take an hour for lunch and leave at 4:30.

This can be challenging as it will expose the realities of how much time the team, and individuals, spend working on the sprint.

Tasking out each backlog item

For many teams, this is the most difficult step of Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning. Teams that are trying a Commitment-Driven approach for the first time worry about getting their estimates “right.”

While estimating and getting estimates “right,” is beyond the scope of this guide, if you just focus on making sure you have all of the known tasks required to get the story to “DONE” your tasking will be good enough for Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning.

How to decide if the backlog item "fits"

This is the most important step in the commitment driven process.

The team must have the final say whether or not they add a backlog item to the sprint.

If the team thinks that given all the known circumstances they can only fill 50% of their total capacity, that’s okay. Commitment-driven sprint planning does not work when a manager forces the team to commit to more work for their sprint than they feel comfortable with.

However, this is a two way street. If the team commits to 50% of their capacity, it is reasonable to expect that they finish in 50% of the time allotted. This presents a very powerful opportunity for being open and transparent with the work and the progress towards finishing that work.

When a team commits to 50% of their capacity in a sprint, they should finish halfway through the sprint. Once the work starts, discussions at standup about being on track, plans to stay on track, and plans to get back on track will become very important for the team.

What to do during the sprint

  1. On a daily (or more) basis, review the work to determine if the team is "on track."
  2. When the team is ahead of schedule, work towards finishing early instead of taking on new work.
  3. When the team is behind schedule, formulate a plan to get back on schedule and fulfill the commitment.

Common Objections to Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning

This approach to planning can seem overwhelming. Teams are hesitant to adopt a commitment-driven approach because it takes a lot of time and estimating tasks can be very difficult. Managers are hesitant to adopt a commitment-driven approach because it may expose organizational inefficiencies and obstacles which prevent teams from making more aggressive commitments.

Here are some common objections to commitment-driven sprint planning.

Sprint interruptions require a buffer

If your team has a problem with being interrupted, it's better to address the source of the interruption than to assume you need a buffer in your sprint.

Some members of the team are too slow

Embrace collective code ownership, start pairing and improve the skills of the team.

Can't tell what it takes to complete the work

Improve your definition of “DONE” and remember that you can always inspect and adapt after the sprint.

Common pitfalls of a commitment-driven approach

When you first try Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning, there is a good chance that you will wildly over or under commit. Here are some common problems and some suggested next steps.

Only finishing a fraction of the committed work

Identify where the time went. Were there interruptions? More meetings that expected? Sick team members?
Where did the time go?

Missing tasks and poor task estimates

What questions did you miss at planning that could have helped uncover these “unknowns?” Did certain types of tasks take much longer than expected? Did certain types of tasks take less than expected?

Misalignment about the commitment

When the going gets tough, some teams find out that they don't quite agree on what it means to "make and keep commitments." Ensure that the team knows what they will do if they are at risk of missing the commitment (e.g. work late, work over the weekend.)

Taking the full sprint to finish a 50% capacity plan

Did the overall work just take longer? How did the work progress during the sprint? Were there times when no progress towards the commitment was made? Was the progress towards the commitment discussed each day at the standup?

The team isn't finishing their commitments

The biggest frustration from the business with commitment-driven sprint planning is when the team does not finish their commitment. If the business agrees to let the team determine their commitment for the sprint, the team needs to follow through and complete their commitment.

The business is constantly changing directions

Adopting a commitment-driven approach requires that the business avoid interrupting or changing requirements on the team during the sprint. When there is a material change to requirements or directions, the team is often better off starting over with a new plan.

Is Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning Right for my team?

Consider using a commitment driven approach when your team is capable of:

  • Breaking down backlog items into tasks
  • Semi-accurately estimating tasks
  • Having open and honest conversations about the work-to-be-done
  • Understanding what it means for the work to be "done done"
  • Frequently reviewing and accounting for changes in the plan

You may want to skip a commitment-driven approach if your team:

  • Has business-imposed deadlines for all of your work
  • Is not allowed to commit to anything less than 100% of your capacity
  • Struggles with technical debt and defects
  • Lacks protection from interruptions and distractions
  • Does not like, or is incapable of, estimating tasks using hours

How is it different than other types of Sprint Planning?

A commitment-driven approach is mostly the same as any other sprint planning meeting. There's still a discussion of the backlog items, negotiation with the product owner, and decisions about implementation details.

Compared to velocity-driven sprint planning

With a velocity-driven approach, team fills up the sprint based on as estimated velocity for the upcoming sprint. Usually using story points or similar complexity based estimation technique.

Commitment-driven planning uses concrete hours to determine capacity and estimations.

Compared to date-driven sprint planning

Date-driven sprint planning usually involves a hard deadline that the team works backwards from to determine sprint capacity. The business picks a date and the team tells them what can be done by that date.

Commitment-driven planning puts the team in full control of what they can commit to finishing and when.

Compared to story-driven sprint planning

Story-driven sprint planning focuses on completing a certain group of backlog items, regardless of the completion date.

Commitment-driven planning constrains the amount of work to the team's overall capacity.

Additional Resources

The book Effective Sprint Planning: How to (actually) run a successful sprint planning meeting contains a detailed and expanded guide to commitment-driven sprint planning.

You can make a copy of my Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning Template in Google docs by selecting File > Make a Copy.